Written by Staff

March 1, 2023

Definition of filicide:

When a parent, either the mother or father, kills their child, the act is defined as filicide. Filicide can be shocking for the community because parents are expected to protect and care for their children. However, filicide is not a new act; it has occurred among populations since the beginning of time. There are three terms often used when addressing child homicide. These terms are:

  • neonaticide (killing of a child at birth),
  • infanticide (killing of a child under 12 months old),
  • filicide (killing of a child by the parent).

Child homicide occurs at the highest rate in the United States among developed nations (Resnik, 2016). There are various characteristics and classifications of filicide. Although different models are available to classify filicide, this document will focus on Dr. Phillip Resnik’s model. In Dr. Resnik’s model, the motive is used to classify filicide. Following Dr. Resnik’s research, additional models were created to classify filicide further.

What are the classifications of filicide?

The act of filicide has been researched and categorized into five primary characteristics. The characteristics were determined based on the parent’s motives. The characteristics of filicide are:

  1. Altruism filicide occurs when the parent is motivated to kill the child to relieve the child of actual or imagined suffering. This classification of filicide is often associated with the parent attempting or committing suicide.
  2. Acute psychosis filicide happens when a parent kills their child due to a severe mental health condition.
  3. Unwanted child filicide occurs when a parent kills their child because he/she no longer wants to be a parent.
  4. Accidental filicide commonly occurs when a parent kills their child by accident. This type of filicide may occur when a parent disciplines their child, and it goes too far.
  5. Spousal revenge filicide often happens when a parent kills the child to seek revenge against the other parent.

What weapons are used in filicide?

The occurrence rate of filicide in mothers and fathers is similar; however, the weapons used vary. Men commonly commit filicide by using violent methods. Paternal filicide often occurs using weapons, such as knives, and can include squeezing, stabbing, and striking. Maternal filicide often occurs by using personal body weapons, such as hands, and includes methods such as strangulation, drowning, and suffocation.

What are the legal outcomes of committing filicide?

During the legal process, a defense attorney will represent a parent (defendant) who commits filicide. The legal consequences for committing filicide (child murder) vary between jurisdictions. The legal system has sometimes displayed leniency toward mothers who commit filicide, whereas fathers seemed to have received harsher sentencing. The defense strategy commonly used in altruistic and acutely psychotic filicide cases is the not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) defense.

  • Not guilty by reason of insanity (California Penal Code 1026) is a legal defense that occurs when a defendant commits a crime during a period when they were not considered mentally sane.

If a not guilty by reason of insanity defense is upheld, the defendant will be sent to a state forensic psychiatric hospital to serve their sentence as opposed to jail or prison. In these cases, the legal system will utilize a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist to conduct a forensic evaluation. During the forensic evaluation, the forensic psychologist or psychiatrist will determine if the defendant has a mental illness and whether or not the defendant knew their actions were right or wrong (legally or morally) at the time of the offense. If the professional determines the defendant did not know their actions were legally or morally wrong at the time of the offense, it must have been due to a mental disorder. The not guilty by reason of insanity defense is a controversial defense strategy. Society commonly holds two opposing views concerning the not guilty by reason of insanity defense. One view about filicide is that the defendant should be held accountable for the crime of killing a child. The opposing view is that the defendant should not be held accountable due to having an existing severe mental illness.

How can filicide be prevented?

It is challenging to predict the warning signs for potential filicide. Therefore, a clearly defined technique to prevent filicide has not been identified. However, recognizing the contributors to filicide will help mental health professionals understand the dynamics of parents that commit filicide. Once mental health professionals understand the dynamics leading to filicide, prevention efforts can be made to reduce the occurrence. There are several aspects of filicide cases that mothers and fathers have in common, which include:

  • presence of a significant stressor,
  • lack of a social support system, and
  • endured past child abuse.

Current laws in the United States allow child protection agencies and law enforcement to intervene if they suspect child abuse is occurring. In addition, medical professionals rendering care to children can ask questions that help them decide the parent’s suitability and whether a child is at risk for harm. Early intervention from primary care doctors, pediatricians, therapists, and social workers is a crucial aspect of filicide prevention. Continual research is being conducted about filicide to increase prevention efforts.

When to seek emergency help?

Immediately call 911 or your local emergency number if you or someone you know is thinking about self-harm, suicide, homicide, or are in psychiatric distress. If you are with someone thinking about hurting themselves, stay with the person to keep them safe until emergency services arrive at your location.

  • 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (Call or Text 988)
  • Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255, Press 1 to talk)
  • Text Hello to 741741

For non-emergency services in LA County (the entry point for mental health services with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health), use the following telephone number.

  • LACDMH ACCESS LINE: 800-854-7771

For Parents of Murdered Children, the National Organization of Murdered Children may have some resources. Visit their website below.

If you are interested in a psychological evaluation by one of our psychologists at Vienna Psychological Group, book your free 30-minute consultation here.

To learn more about mental health and forensic psychology, check out our blog library here and our podcast, The Forensic Psychologist Podcast, hosted by Dr. Vienna on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

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This blog aims to answer general questions and assist readers in better understanding filicide. This blog is not intended to provide medical, psychiatric, or legal advice.


Cylc, L. (2004). Classifications and descriptions of parents who commit filicide. CONCEPT, p. 28.

Liem, M., & Koenraadt, F. (2008). Filicide: A comparative study of maternal versus paternal child homicide. Criminal behavior and mental health, 18(3), 166-176.

Möller, A. (2015). Methods of Murder in Maternal Filicide: An Analysis of Weapon Use and Mode of Death.

Resnick P. J. (2016). Filicide in the United States. Indian journal of psychiatry, 58(Suppl,2016, 2), S203–S209. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.196845.


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